Week 4 Private: Joel Arellano

“The rise of the sciences propelled man into the tunnels of specialized disciplines. The more he advanced in knowledge, the less clearly could he see either the world as a whole or his own self, and he plunged further into what Husserl’s pupil Heidegger called, in a beautiful and almost magical phrase, ‘the forgetting of being.'”

 -Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel

Art- what brought that up? To draw the connection between digital culture and art, Gere offers a loose explanation that the same kinds of discourses and ideas (information theory, cybernetics, etc) that developed in tandem with digital technology also emerged in a similar pattern with the arts (79). I don’t think Gere is wrong, but he missed an opportunity to identify the source of this triple connection, and I’d like to recover that ground.

Gere probably misses the connection between art, digital culture, and the ideas that shaped them because his field of vision is too narrow- he locates the origin of digital culture in the 1800s, at the creation of some digital machine. In my view, we need to look back another two hundred years to Cervantes to understand the emergence of abstraction and codification in western culture (17). Cervantes gave us the novel, a Western form of literature that pursues existential questions through fiction. Novels provide the artistic, psychological, and philosophical space to investigate who we are and the problems we face- Don Quixote deals specifically with the absurdity of pursuing traditional idealism the face of an increasingly rational world. (Of course, rationalism – the harbinger of abstraction and codification – began long before Cervantes, but its development halted with the fall of the Roman Empire. Don Quixote is the first place we observe its effects reappear as a popular cultural phenomenon.)

Novels not only explore questions of identity and purpose within a culture, but also facilitate experimental thought and dialogue between authors regarding the same concerns. Cervantes, Diderot, Flaubert, Kafka, Musil, Pynchon, and others provide rich documentation of the cultural impact had by the expansion of rational (read: digital) thought throughout modern history. These authors faced a shrinking world, newly connected by transport and communication, where the cult of rationalism permeated everything from government (Kafka) to medicine (Mann). Long before American counter-culture opposed the fruits of digital culture, these novelists wrestled with the consequences posed by a world where rationalism had degraded traditional values, physical space, privacy, and quietude. If we’re serious about understanding the emergence of “abstraction, codification, self-regulation, virtualization and programming” (17) as constituents of cultural thought, we must study their evolution from Cervantes to The Castle and beyond.

Rationalism leads to digital machines because it is the engine of efficiency and industry. Even today, rationalism is the means by which we attempt to pacify and introduce Western order into unstable regions- we simply promote the rule of law, a byword for democracy. Gere acknowledges that ideas in digital culture “elevated the individual over the collective” (144), and notices that the Internet itself is “a material realization of the idea of the market as a spontaneous natural phenomenon” (153), but he doesn’t pursue the origin of digital culture beyond making the murky observation that its components emerged in response to capitalism (18). Going further, we find that rationalism is the common cause of all three trends- it is the source of digital culture.

In this light, it becomes clear why Adam Smith and neo-liberal economics have been inseparable from cybernetics, digital culture, and systems theory. But what about art? As the development of science and technology caused growing disenchantment at the external world, we sought to recuperate that loss of wonder by turning inward to examine ourselves while rejecting the trap the world was becoming- thus began the era of ideological art. The shift from art as mimesis to art as ideology spurned radical new movements and means of artistic engagement designed to accommodate the new purposive quality of art. Among these, Gere cites abstract “language, codes, signification, and gesture” and “the deliberate economy of means by which many [artists] achieved their aims” (115). He goes on to compare this new art to computers, observing that both are spaces in which anything and everything can happen, which is the famously problematic circumstance Arthur Danto called “the end of art.” Thus, our recourse to art as a response to our disenchantment with digital culture led us to introduce rational thought to art, and so art, too, was subsumed within the greater evolution of digital culture.

How we proceed from here is unclear. 

“…As corporate structures have permeated the art world at large over the past decades it has become harder to discern a difference between an appropriative gesture and standard practice.”

Brian Droitcour, “Young Incorporated Artists”

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